One of the few things you can depend on these days is that any time spent with one of Gore Vidal's many novels or plays will be rewarding.
The old master has always known how to keep us entertained, and the revival of his 1960 hit The Best Man, which opened last night at the Virginia Theatre for a limited run, is delightful proof of how well he knows his subject (American politics) and how well he understands our cynical fascination with the political process.
What will strike you most about this revival is how much and how little things have changed in the last 40 years. Political mudslinging as a valid tactic during a heated campaign (to sling or not to sling, that is the question) is very much in the forefront. Accusations of homosexuality (yes, it still carries a punch) and mental instability, and the irony of how one man's personal, private agenda to revenge an old wrong can ultimately change the course of a nation's destiny are all surprising and extremely effective pieces in Vidal's puzzle. Even the historical marginalization of women in the political process comes into play, though you suspect it's much more a cause for comment in this production than it may have been in the original.
This cleverly assembled cast is top notch across the board, with no disappointments and more than a few surprises. Spalding Gray and Michael Learned are superbly well matched as the intellectual candidate and his resentful but dutiful wife. Both give low key but compelling performances which create a reality as potent as today's headlines. Chris Noth and Christine Ebersole play the other candidate and his wife with a shrewd eye for contrast and an aggressive confidence which is unsettling when you realize you must have at one time or other actually voted for people like this.
Both Charles Durning as the ex-President and Elizabeth Ashley as the Chairman of the Women's Division are giving star turns which can only be described as the icing on the cake.
In smaller but complicated roles, both Mark Blum and Jordan Lage are giving taunt, precise and highly effective performances as the campaign managers. In two brief scenes Jonathan Hadary has an impact and effect far larger than the size of his role might suggest.
Ethan McSweeny's direction is appropriate and never obvious. John Arnone's set, Theoni V. Aldredge's costumes, and Howell Binkley's lighting design are all superb. This is a play where you end up feeling that the $75 ticket was a bargain.
Gore Vidal's The Best Man Directed by Ethan McSweeny. Scenic design by John Arnone. Costume design by Theoni V. Aldredge. Lighting design by Howell Binkley. Sound design by David Van Tieghem. Starring Charles Durning, Spalding Gray, Chris Noth, Elizabeth Ashley, Christine Ebersole, Michael Learned, Marc Blum, and Jonathan Hadary. With Walter Cronkite as the Voice of the Commentator.
Theatre: Virginia Theatre, 245 West 52nd Street, between Broadway and 8th Avenue.
Running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, including one 15 minute intermission.
Schedule: Tuesday through Saturday at 8 PM, Wednesday and Saturday at 2 PM, Sunday at 3 PM.
Audience: May be inappropriate for children 10 and under. Children under 4 are not permitted in the theatre.
Ticket prices: $75, $60 and $45 (Wednesday Matinee: $70, $55 and $40) A $1 Theatre Restoration Charge will be added to the price of each ticket.
Standing Room: $20 Standing Room is available only at the Box Office, and only when the performance is completely sold out.
Tickets online: TeleCharge
Tickets by phone: TeleCharge at (212) 239-6200, or outside the New York metro area (800) 545-2559, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Tickets in person: Box Office hours Monday through Saturday 10 AM to 8 PM, Sunday Noon to 6 PM.
Tickets by E-mail: email@example.com
Tickets by Snail mail: Gore Vidal's The Best Man, PO Box 998, Times Square Station, New York, NY 10108-0998. (Please add the $1 Theatre Restoration Charge to the price of each ticket ordered.)